Teenage couple Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate's 1958 killing spree left 11 people dead and inspired two movies, Badlands and Natural Born Killers. It's only now, however, that the murderers get to sing. The premiere of Kyle Jarrow's Love Kills leaves little room for doubt that he can write catchy hooks and poignant lyrics firmly in line with the current uprising of pop-based musicals that appall many purists but appeal to a new generation of fans.
The setting is the Nebraska jail the night of Charlie (Eli Schneider) and Caril's (Marisa Rhodes) arrest, and the action is their subsequent interrogation by the local sheriff (John Hickock) and his wife (Deirdre O'Connell). Charlie and Caril are in separate cells, singing behind bars, but they often leave the confines for center-stage duets, including a disturbing nude bathtub scene. Rhodes has an incredible voice and stage presence and, resembling a coy 1960s French starlet, conveys both her innocence and sexuality in every subtle glance and spoken line. Schneider tries to match her with macho intensity but somehow never quite captivates — despite some valiant rock-star flailing and high-octave keens.
It's unclear if some of the awkwardness expressed by Schneider is intentional teen goofiness, but it seems more likely the fault of Jason Southerland's poor staging choices. Schneider and Rhodes often have a difficult time getting out of their cages and are left to scramble in the stage's narrow confines. Jarrow subtitles the show "an emo rock musical," referring to the current style of pop music that appeals to adolescents due to its confessional, angst-ridden nature. The feeling of being at a rock concert for misunderstood teens masks many clumsy moments, but, luckily, with the clever juxtaposition of the mature love between the older couple, the show transcends juvenile anguish to become something more lasting.
Presented by Jason Southerland, Jaimie Mayer, Bridget Frey, and Ciara Pressler, in association with Boston Theatre Works, as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival
at the 45th Street Theater, 354 W. 45th St., NYC.
Sept. 18-29. Remaining performances Wed., Sept. 26, 8 p.m.; Fri., Sept. 28, 1 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 29, 8 p.m.
(212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111 or www.theatermania.com or www.nymf.org.
Casting by Henry Russell Bergstein.